Is Donald Trump right about 'stupid' voters?

Trump goes on 95-minute tirade at rally
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    Trump goes on 95-minute tirade at rally


Trump goes on 95-minute tirade at rally 02:00

Story highlights

  • Paul Waldman: Some think Paris attacks will pull voters to GOP establishment candidates for experience, not bombast. Wishful thinking.
  • Donald Trump has asked whether Iowa voters were "stupid." Fact is, voters display stunning ignorance of basic issues. Bombast is winning.

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with the American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine, and a blogger for The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, establishment Republicans are hopeful that their voters will finally come to their senses, realize that they need a seasoned hand on the tiller of state and stop their dalliance with "outsider" candidates who have little idea how to handle foreign and military affairs.

Paul Waldman
"Bombast doesn't cut it. Inexperience doesn't cut it," former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told The New York Times. "Those who have a record of governance and demonstrated leadership capabilities -- their stock is going to rise."
That's what you call wishful thinking. When was the last time the voting public responded to an external threat by becoming serious and thoughtful?
    If anything, Republican voters are likely to be even more attracted to those who offer bombast and bluster -- and the truth is, that's what they're getting from most every candidate, experienced or not. Don't be surprised if Donald Trump -- who literally says that the answer to the problem of ISIS is, "We go in, we knock the hell out of them, take the oil" -- winds up even stronger.
    And Trump isn't going to mince words. Unlike most politicians who shower voters with praise like they're preschoolers bringing home their first art project, Trump will tell them when they let him down.
    Faced with the fact that he is trailing Ben Carson in Iowa polls (and some national polls as well), last week Trump went on a spectacularly weird 95-minute rant that laid into the good folk of the Hawkeye State for accepting some of the stories in Carson's autobiography and elevating him to the top of the pack.
    "How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?" Trump asked. "Don't be fools, OK?"
    Trump seems to believe that only a fool would reject him in favor of any other candidate, a questionable assertion to say the least. But on the broader point, was he right?
    Well, yes.
    When it comes to politics, the American people are indeed not so sharp.
    But perhaps "stupid" isn't quite the right word, since it suggests a fundamental and unchangeable state of their minds. "Uninformed" or "ignorant" might be better. "Foolish" works, too.
    Donald Trump questions Carson's stabbing story
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      Donald Trump questions Carson's stabbing story


    Donald Trump questions Carson's stabbing story 01:11
    Right now, the idiocy is on particular display in the intense Republican primary contest. Half of the GOP electorate is supporting either a vulgarian reality TV personality or a doctor who has zero experience in politics or government, believes in bizarre conspiracy theories and can't manage to string together a coherent paragraph on the issues he'd actually confront if he were president.
    Even some Republican Party stalwarts are horrified at where these voters are leaning; as one told The Washington Post, "We're potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn't fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job."
    It's something political scientists have known for decades: as a whole, the public knows distressingly little about the issues government deals with and candidates argue about. Even basic, unchanging facts about the political world are lost on significant portions of the electorate. For instance, in this study from the Pew Research Center, three out of 10 people could not identify the Republicans as the more conservative party -- the most fundamental distinction you'd need to grasp anything about politics.
    Just 61% knew that it was the Republicans who want to restrict abortion, while 53% said they're the party that wants to reduce the size of government. These are questions where respondents had a 50% chance of getting the answer right with just a random guess. So you can forget about their ability to evaluate the differences in the candidates' tax plans.
    If everyone had even a basic understanding of what separates the two parties, we'd hardly need general election campaigns at all. Ask yourself this: Is there likely to be anything that happens in next fall's campaign that will change your mind about your vote? A powerful TV ad, a candidate's "gaffe," a clever riposte in a debate? The fact that one candidate is taller, or another has a soothing voice, or a third is better at explaining just how damn much he loves this country?
    You'd probably say, "Of course not. Stuff like that doesn't matter to me." But it obviously matters to somebody, because that's what we spend a year or two before every election talking about.
    There is, of course, another possibility: People aren't dumb; they just don't care. They have lots of other things to worry about besides politics -- their jobs, their families, their fantasy sports teams -- and they know plenty about those things. They choose not to pay much attention to political affairs, but if they did, they could be as informed as any political junkie.
    That makes sense, but it still leaves us with a problem. The people we elect to high office make decisions that affect all our lives in profound ways. You can decide to ignore something like sports and it won't make much difference. But as an old saying has it, you may not take an interest in politics, but politics will take an interest in you.
    And when people suddenly start paying attention -- like when there's a dramatic terrorist attack -- there's little reason to believe they're suddenly going to be wiser about politics than they were before.